16. Gone with the Wind changed the perception of the South
In 1936 Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, a novel supporting the concepts of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, was released. It was the most popular work of fiction in the United States for the next two years, and has sold over 30 million copies since. Its depiction of the history of the antebellum South and the Civil War, as well as Reconstruction, is a summation of the Lost Cause, using fiction to depict history. For many of its fans it changed how the institution of slavery was perceived. In the novel, the slaves owned by the families of the great plantations were invariably loyal, faithful, and proud of their positions within the plantation hierarchy.
The southern soldiers were knightly, their enemies beastly. Those who betrayed the Southern cause, or who profited from it (such as Rhett Butler) were scoundrels. Mitchell used the word scallawag (sic) to describe them, though scalawag was actually a term used for southerners who accepted Reconstruction after the war. According to one reviewer of a later edition of the book, Pat Conroy, Mitchell reduced the Ku Klux Klan to, “â¦a benign combination of the Elks Club and a men’s equestrian society”. Gone with the Wind distorted the history of the American Civil War both as a novel and in the subsequent film. It remains an example of the revision of history known as the Lost Cause, of which Mitchell was a product.
17. Distorting history in film was an effective means of advancing an agenda
In the United States even the worst performing films at the box office were viewed by large audiences, especially after home video made them accessible in the 1970s. When history was depicted in film, the distortions were accepted as part of the story. Many are deemed necessary by the filmmaker, in order to condense the story into the length of the film, though many are not. What is seen and heard in film carries an emotional element not present in the classroom. Film delivers a greater impact. The distortions of history delivered by film are retained, and likely to be defended. Propagandists have used film to deliver their messages for decades for that reason.
During the Second World War films were prepared by nearly every country with a film industry, displayed in theaters to inspire patriotism and support for the war effort. Following the war, the films were revived by the new and rapidly expanding medium of television. They were shown alongside newly produced programs, many of which were based on American history or historical events. Many of them were skewed by the politics of their creators, with the Red Scare and the Cold War shaping their views. Impressionable minds were shaped, in part, by the depiction of history to which they were exposed in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
18. The heroes of the dime novels returned on early television
Early television series based on American history and historical figures returned to the tried and true subjects which had been successful in the past in print media. Wyatt Earp and Jim Bowie. Buffalo Bill and Kit Carson. Wild Bill Hickok. The US Cavalry riding to the rescue across the plains. Wagon trains of settlers plodding west. There were fictional characters in their own universes and fictional characters interacting with real-life Americans of the past. There was little way to tell which was which. There was also little way to tell what was history and what was fiction, but in the programs featuring historical characters it was all presented as history.
19. Abraham Lincoln’s legacy was distorted in entertainment for over a century
In part due to his murder just as victory was achieved in the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln’s legacy was distorted for over a century by the entertainment industry. He was often presented in films as a poor and struggling country lawyer before entering Congress. In truth, he was highly successful in his legal career, representing railroads among his clients. He carefully cultivated an image as a man of the people, of simple tastes, and of judicious temperament. Honest Abe was a moniker applied to him by political opponents, a sarcastic commentary on his considerable political skills. Film long ignored those qualities.
Instead Lincoln was dehumanized and elevated to the pantheon of the demigods. He was presented as possessing the wisdom of Solomon, the leadership of Moses, and the patience of Job. Strangely, in the Lost Cause film The Birth of the Nation he was treated sympathetically, the only Northerner to receive such treatment. For generations Lincoln was regarded as one of the President’s closest to the people, though nearly all of what the people knew of him was distorted through the lens of entertainment, which used him for other dramatic purposes.
The use of war as the backdrop for entertainment is a device which dates to ancient times, with the Odyssey and the Iliad two early examples of the genre. It has never lost popularity. While there have been some attempts to depict warfare accurately, for the most part it has always been distorted. Film was especially guilty of distorting warfare history. In films of the American Revolutionary War for example, brave patriots marched off to fight the British whistling Yankee Doodle; in reality less than one third of American men supported the Revolution, and fewer than that fought in the war.
The same pattern is found in the movies made in Great Britain during the Second World War, where the stiff upper lip of the British citizenry is second only to the gallantry of the men and women in uniform. In both the United States and Great Britain extensive black markets developed and operated throughout the war, dealing in rationed goods. Neither has been covered in films, other than an aside as a plot device. In the United States, organized crime figures were recruited to help secure the docks in New York and New Jersey. Such didn’t jibe with the patriotic feeling of the time, and it remained unnoticed by the film industry, which focused on crime of another type.
Films about the stand of the defenders at the Alamo have been produced since the days of silent movies (With Davy Crockett at the Fall of the Alamo, 1926). They have starred John Wayne, Fess Parker, and Billy Bob Thornton in the role of Crockett, as well as others. All of them have depicted the battle as a heroic stand of the Americans against the tyranny of the Mexican dictator, Santa Anna. None of them have ever presented the true nature of the Texas Revolution. The Mexican government had abolished slavery. The revolutionaries wanted slavery to remain legal in Texas. It was just one grievance which led to the revolution, but it was an important one.
Most of the Americans in Texas, including Crockett, had arrived there lured by the promise of land for the taking, hoping to establish estates in their new country. They had abandoned America for new opportunities in what was then a state in Mexico. Desirous of retaining slavery, and opposing Catholic rule, they rose in revolt. Crockett arrived in Texas when he thought the fighting was over. Instead, the Mexican army was on the way to put down the revolt. The stand at the Alamo was no less heroic, but it wasn’t the gallant stand against tyranny depicted so often in film, on television, and in books, comic books, and periodicals.
22. Film often distorts its own history as well as that of others
The film industry in particular uses the medium to present its own history in a manner which is meant to be entertaining and informative, though not necessarily factual. Motion pictures which focus on the history of the industry are necessarily self-serving. Films about the lives of famous stars, such as Chaplin, Fields, Chaney, or filmmakers such as Howard Hughes and Alfred Hitchcock, had no obligation to be historically accurate, though labeling them as biographical implied that they were. Such films are for entertainment, rather than education, though the use of such films in formal education became commonplace in the 1980s at the secondary, and sometimes at the primary level.
The use of other types of films to teach history expanded in the late 20th century, with recognition of film’s superior capability to make a lasting impression. For example, the film version of Alex Haley’s Roots was used in classrooms across the United States. Roots was widely believed to be a factual representation of the author’s family history, though it was a novel, and large portions of the work lacked evidence supported by historical fact. After Haley’s death, his friend Henry Gates Jr, an historian, wrote in the Boston Globe, “Roots is a work of the imagination rather than strict historical scholarship. It was an important event because it captured everyone’s imagination”.
In three major motion pictures, and in the trilogy of novels on which two of them were based, British naval officer William Bligh was depicted as a tyrannical, sadistic, and almost incompetent ship’s captain. The depiction was accepted to the point that other works of fiction, and some of non-fiction, used his name as an example of cruelty. Captain Bligh became a simile for brutality. It was completely untrue. The logs of the ships he commanded throughout his long and distinguished career (he achieved the rank of Vice-Admiral) indicate he was actually lenient in his punishments in comparison with most commanders of his time.
He was also a superb cartographer and navigator, deeply concerned with the health and welfare of the men under his command, and commended for his leadership in battle by Lord Nelson. The entertainment industry used him as the foil for the romantic presentation of the story of the Bounty beginning in the 1930s, and the reputation assigned to him in fiction has remained ever since. The true story of the Bounty is not the romantic legend of rebellion against tyranny, as the movies and books covering the subject have long presented. But the legend created by the entertainment industry remains intact, a complete distortion of history.
24. Distortions of history are more likely to be encountered in films than historical facts
The film industry in the United States relies on a simple belief. History is a little-known discipline among their general audiences, and what is known is already largely incorrect. This allows liberties to be taken with historical characters. Thanks to the film Amadeus, Mozart became known as a vulgar and dissipated lout. The historical record says otherwise. U-571 depicted Americans capturing an Enigma machine during World War II. It never happened. The British broke the Enigma codes, using captured materials and information provided by Polish Intelligence.
Several educational sites recommend movies to be shown in high school history classes, even while noting that the films are often historically inaccurate. Among them are Mrs. Miniver, which was made as a piece of British war propaganda; A Man for All Seasons, which presents Thomas More in a wholly inaccurate manner; and Casablanca, which is completely fictional from beginning to end. Too often, distortions of history which began in the minds of filmmakers are reinforced in history classes, becoming the history which is known by the public.
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